Those who fear they have used up all their original ideas find themselves reduced to reacting to the ideas of others. This must be why I have been mulling over a fan mail response by my friend @dirnelli, a very prolific #menswear blogger and hashtagger. I find I must react.
I am an avowed #smalltimer. I have owned in my lifetime about as many suits and sportcoats as Dirnelli sells off in a week. I poast to the blogosphere far less frequently, or decoratively, than my friend. Even though I sit on the sidelines, I am no referee, and fear calling a foul, let alone causing one. Nonetheless, in the response of blogger to punter I think there is still much to mine.
Dirnelli fielded the question of whether it was “illogical” to have bespoke clothing made for someone else altered to fit him, given that one of bespoke’s “magical” charms lay in the “very personal relationship” between tailor and customer from the first order onwards. Dirnelli sensibly noted that the relationship between tailor and customer has been fetishized in men’s fashion media, including by some of his fellow bloggers, to some sort of psychic bond. (Or as the recent rather pathetic New Yorkerpiece about Akhil Sharma’s fawning attempts to copy the magic of a custom suit suggests, a psychokinetic bond, allowing custom tailor to divine a customer’s wishes and transform him into an impeccable demigod.) Dirnelli further noted that since bespoke clothing – like any other personal indulgence that consumerist shills term an “investment” – can be purchased on the secondary market for a tiny fraction of its initial price, other people’s cast-off bespoke clothing is the best way to “go bespoke on a budget.” What a custom tailor completed for someone else, Dirnelli’s alterations tailor now melds to fit him.
I base my reaction and analysis below, the lazy reflex of the suddenly idea-less, in keeping with my musing at the beginning of this piece, on my own experience of bespoke, both in having things made for me and in having things altered to fit me, the latter being Dirnelli’s usual modus operandi. Importantly, implicit in Dirnelli’s response is that the secondhand bespoke clothing that he’s having altered to fit him is well made in the traditional manner – that is, that (in addition to being competently made to the standards of luxury custom clothing) it’s been made with copious inlays and allowances of fabric for extensive alterations. Good custom suits traditionally have extra cloth even in the trouser cuffs, presumably so that your heirs of different height can have the legs let out – after all, our leg length is unlikely to change unless we’ve spent time in zero gravity or on the rack. (Did you know that in addition to gaining height due to the lack of gravity in outer space, long-term astronauts suffer permanent sight impairment from the absence of gravity pulling on the shape and structure of the eye? Irrelevant but mind-blowing.) For the same reasons of longevity and foresight, only two (out of four) buttons at the jacket cuff of good custom suits traditionally are made to open and close: working buttonholes mean that it’s difficult to alter sleeve length (since working buttonholes can’t easily be invisibly stitched up), so having two remaining sham buttonholes provides a little leeway for moving the sleeve length. (That’s also why it’s best to buy a ready-to-wear suit jacket without working cuff buttons, since otherwise you can’t actually easily alter the sleeves to your arm length.)
More importantly to his response (and perhaps more improbably, in my experience), Dirnelli assumes the existence of a genius alterations tailor. From everything I’ve seen of his fit pics, he has one, and that fellow’s work is worth its weight in gold – and probably charged accordingly. My own Paris alterations tailor, although also a trained custom tailor, turned out to be an awful huckster I wouldn’t recommend to hem pants, despite coming to me with the highest praise of one of the prime movers of the early Internet fora - in X-Men terms, Apocalypse to my Wolverine (because Hugh Jackman is teh dreamy). And indeed, a good alterations tailor who can undertake the significant work needed to alter shoulder padding, close up or open vents, or any of the other sensitive operations Dirnelli’s had carried out needs to be a highly trained tailor, not the poor soul behind the counter at the local dry cleaner, even the ones with a stylized suit baste in the window (do they buy those things out of prop catalogs?). Changes to one aspect of a suit can affect the rest of it in visible ways, from the pitch of the sleeves to the front or side balance (that is, whether the fronts and backs or the left and right sides of a suit jacket hang in alignment and at the same distance from the ground). As such, it’s a complicated form of surgery to make someone else’s custom clothing fit, even if at first try their basic proportions seem similar.
Given the complicated work needed to make someone else’s suit fit, it’s important to bear in mind that that an alterations tailor, like a bespoke tailor, has to start somewhere. Dirnelli points out that a custom tailor begins (after taking measurements) with a first fitting of a new custom garment on the customer. This fitting, he declares, is usually far from perfect. Since an alterations tailor begins by fitting a suit made for someone else on the customer, it must also be the case that fitting a secondhand bespoke suit initially is far from ideal – indeed, the suit will not have been cut for the customer, so the proportions will inevitably be off. The question is how irretrievably far they may be, and in a suit actually made for you by a good custom tailor, the garment will not risk being irredeemable, an inevitable risk in altering secondhand bespoke.
True, in altering someone else’s custom suit, the stakes may be somewhat lower, perhaps by an order of magnitude, at least financially. Competent custom tailoring, made anywhere, is very expensive. Competent alterations are cheap only in comparison. In my experience, a really good alterations tailor can work wonders, provided that the starting point – the piece of vintage clothing as is – more or less already fits passably well in length and proportions to begin with. But that really good alterations tailor is incredibly hard to find. Good custom tailors may have one on staff, but they generally only work on their own clothing, unless you’ve also bought bespoke from them. Really good independents seem to literally be one in a million.
The pursuit of bespoke, even dead people’s bespoke, is an expensive habit. Competent alterations are reasonably priced only in comparison to the ruinous cost of having a custom tailor actually make the garment for you. Moreover, that pursuit of secondhand bespoke for bespoke’s sake (having a suit that fits) is only part of what makes bespoke clothing interesting. The other part of it is being able to have something made in the cloth, style and colors that we want. I like, and thus have ordered in most of my suits, two-button jackets with double vents, moderately slanted pockets, and trousers with no cuffs, with side adjusters instead of belt loops. While none of these are particularly rare or baroque details, it’s not likely that someone’s cast-off clothing is going to have all of them. To say nothing of the fabric I want - even if it’s usually a simple English wool in grey or blue - or any other details (linings, etc.) that I might specify in my more inspired or foolhardy moments. Or, if it comes down to it, the cut one prefers – I tend to like, even if it is self-delusion, the softer draped cut of a couple of British tailors. These are not often found second-hand, and there’s danger in pushing even the finest alterations tailor to change a suit’s cut dramatically.
Nonetheless, I’ve dabbled in having custom items altered, recently a suit made for a 1970s diplomatic Lothario who, according to my tailor, resembled my father. The bargain and the story, and my curiosity taking the suit back to its maker, vanquished my misgivings towards altered bespoke. Could its maker, a cutter of genius whom Dirnelli himself turned me on to, redeem its dated cut and cinched fit? Or perhaps, as Anselmo tested his wife’s fidelity, I have an unreasonable compulsion to tempt fate and my tailor’s talents until calamity strikes. Will the suit and its racy heritage mold itself to its new wearer? Only time will tell.